Qantas and Australia's consumer watchdog have clashed over refunds for flights cancelled by the airline due to the coronavirus pandemic, and may lead to would-be passengers trading in travel credit vouchers issued by Qantas for a full refund.
The stoush stems from Qantas' first wave of cancellations from mid-March 2020 as Covid-19 took hold and the federal government announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arriving passengers. By the end of the month Qantas had grounded all scheduled international flights, while domestic services were also pared back as demand collapsed and states began to close their own borders.
While Qantas emailed all passengers booked on those flights, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission maintains that the wording of the emails sent between 17 March 2020 and 31 May 2020 "did not adequately inform them of their right to receive a refund."
Instead, the ACCC considers that Qantas’ emails "may have encouraged these customers to cancel bookings themselves in order to receive a credit when many would have been eligible for a refund."
“From our perspective, from the outset, Qantas did not communicate clearly with customers about their rights and, in a large number of cases, simply omitted they were entitled to a refund,” says ACCC Chair Rod Sims.
Sims says the ACCC’s COVID-19 Taskforce "raised concerns" with Qantas after receiving hundreds of complaints from passengers whose flights were suspended or cancelled due to travel restrictions, but who were given credits "instead of the refunds they were entitled to".
“We do appreciate that the airline industry globally is significantly impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, but I think that customers can and should expect better from Qantas, particularly when many of those customers may be out of work or experiencing financial hardship.”
Qantas has now sent new emails to impacted customers, reminding them of their right to a refund, but denies the ACCC's claims that the language of the first email was misleading.
"We hope the ACCC is not inferring that we haven’t done the right thing by our customers, particularly given the efforts we have made to manage an exceptional level of upheaval," a Qantas spokesperson said.
New outreach a 'reminder'
"We didn’t think it was unclear to begin with, but we’ve written again to a group of customers in the window of time that the ACCC is concerned about to make sure they know what alternatives are available to them."
The spokesperson said that domestic and international travel restrictions "triggered an unprecedented level of change in recent months, with well over a million Qantas bookings moved, refunded or turned into credits."
"We’ve worked hard to explain people’s options, especially during the period of time when there were almost weekly changes to where you could fly."
Qantas will now also allow travel credits incurred by coronavirus cancellations and disruptions be used through to December 21, 2022, as well as split them across multiple bookings instead of being restricted to a single booking.
This could, for example, allow the travel credit for one international flight to be used for several domestic flights.
Nonetheless, ACCC chief Simms says "if any customer in this situation is unhappy with receiving a credit, or no longer wants one due to continuing uncertainty about when flights will resume, we strongly encourage them to contact Qantas and seek a refund."